Tree Care Diary – October

Man preparing to plant a new shade tree pushing a wheelbarrow

How to Plant a Shade Tree

Quick reprise of Part 1 and Part 2 shade tree articles in August & September

August – Planning for a new shade tree now – We talked about the significant benefit of shade trees as they grow into a green asset and as they shade your property in the summer months. Arbor Day Foundation confirms that shade trees can cut summer cooling bills by as much as 40%. If you read and acted upon the information shared in August, you will now have a clear idea of where new shade trees might have the maximum cooling impact in your yard in the hottest summer months.

September – Choosing a new shade tree for your yard – We went into some considerable detail into choosing the right shade tree for your yard in your particular hardiness or growing zone in USA. We highlighted our top 25 shade trees with a bias towards both fast-growing and native tree species. We also included a list of our favorite ten shade trees for Florida because residents there spend 4 times on energy bills for cooling on average than the rest of the country. We also included a tool list for tree planting so that you’re well-prepared for this moment. So you should have a planting site in mind, the right tools and your new shade tree. Let’s get planting!

October Tree Planting

This is a fantastic month for planting trees. The ground is still warm which promotes tree root development. Furthermore, top growth is limited as the days shorten. This helps the tree become better established over the winter months. In this way, planting now will give your trees a great head start over those planted next spring. They will need less if any watering over the wetter winter months too.

Many young trees and seedlings experience ‘tree planting shock’ when moved. We see this every week when asked to remove trees that either shouldn’t be in that location to start with or that have been badly planted. The planting advice below has three main benefits:
i). Increase the survivability of your newly planted tree; and
ii). Reduce the tree’s underground strangulation from its own girdling roots; and
iii) Increase rates of growth in the future years by 20% or more.

Above all, we want to help you benefit from that shade as soon as possible.

Follow these 12 steps to give your shade tree the best possible start in your yard.

One Dozen Steps to Tree Planting Nirvana

  1. THREE ESSENTIAL PRE-PLANTING CHECKS i). Check you have the right tools to hand – see September Tree Care Diary here for a list.
    ii) Check the soil test results using the simple kit you purchased. Use to make sure your desired tree has the right growing conditions by matching its needs with the soil in your yard. Purchase any necessary soil modifiers if your soil is deficient in one or two specific nutrients.
    iii) Check that your intended planting site matches with the ideal location for a shade tree established in August – see our August Diary here for a full guide. If you missed this, the general advice is two shade trees for the south side of your home and one for the west side for the maximum shade and cooling effect.
  2. PROTECT YOUR HOME’S FOUNDATIONS – Check that your intended shade tree planting site is at a sufficient distance from your property so as to avoid damaging your home’s foundations in the future. Here’s the table again for ease of reference:
    Height of your Tree at Maturity Minimum Distance from your Building Wall Minimum Distance from your Building Corner
    Short Tree        (i.e. less than 25 ft) 10 ft 8 ft
    Average Tree  (i.e. 25 to 40 ft) 15 ft 12 ft
    Tall Tree           (i.e. 40 ft plus) 20 ft 15 ft
  1. AVOID FUTURE DAMAGE TO UTILITY LINES AND DRAINS – You need to find out where your utilities lie in your yard and adjust your planting spot accordingly. Tree roots can easily invade clay drain pipes in their search for moisture. Call 811 or 1-800-dig-right (in some States) before you start. These services are freely available to everyone. Call them two working days or more before planting. And don’t make the mistake of planting near overhead power lines as shade trees grow tall, especially the way we plant them!

  2. FIND THE TREE’S ROOT FLARE – Remove any burlap covering from the upper surface of the root ball (no need to remove it all just yet). With a knitting needle or screwdriver, gently probe where the roots begin to flare out from the bottom of the tree trunk. Remove excess soil down to this point as this flare must not be covered with soil under any circumstances after planting. From the top measure where the roots begin down to the bottom of the root ball. Use this measure to determine the depth of the planting hole from grade and make sure you dig no deeper.

  3. DIG THE HOLE THE RIGHT WAY – Dig a broad, shallow hole shaped like a saucer at least 3 times the diameter of the root ball. The depth of the hole will be that measured in point 4. Cross section diagram of ideal tree planting hole(above). Making a wide shallow hole will help:

    – roots grow faster into the surrounding soil beyond the planting hole
    – keep the root flare above grade where it should be
    – reduce the tendency of the roots to girdle the root ballDeep, vertical planting holes are not recommended. Horticultural researchers from Colorado State University say they must be avoided. This is because roots find it difficult to spread out into the soil beyond the near vertical wall of deep tree planting holes.
    Shovel soil onto tarps to protect surrounding grass. Loosen the soil a little in the shallow sides of the hole so that roots can penetrate the surrounding undisturbed and compacted soil more easily in the months and years ahead.
    If you have time, till the soil beyond the rim of the planting hole as this will further help the lateral development of roots and accelerate the growth rate of your tree in the future.

  4. PREPARE TREE AND ROOT BALL FOR PLANTING – If the tree’s roots are covered in burlap or encased in a pot carefully remove your young tree from either container. Always lift the tree out by the roots if you can and never by the trunk alone. Gently tease out the exterior roots from the soil it came with; a three tine cultivator is great for this purpose. Watch out for any girdling roots because roots which have circled the root ball can expand and constrict the tree’s growth in the future. So loosen and straighten these out as best you can; remove if necessary.

  5. PREPARE BACK-FILL SOIL – Ensure large clumps are broken up to no more than fist-sized. Mix in any well-rotted organic material but no more than one fifth of the back-fill volume. Add soil modifiers as determined by your soil test earlier. Aside from correcting some mineral deficiencies found from the soil test, there is no need to mix in general fertilizer at this stage – that can wait unto the following spring.

  6. PLACE TREE IN HOLE ENSURING ROOT FLARE IS EXPOSED – Place the tree in the hole at the proper height so that the root flare is slightly above grade and is visible after the tree has been planted. You’ll need someone to hold the tree straight for a few minutes while you fill in the hole.

  7. FILL IN THE HOLE – Straighten your tree in the hole before back-filling with the dug soil. Once the hole is half-filled, water thoroughly to settle the soil and remove air pockets. After the water has drained away, fill in the rest of the hole and tamp down lightly but not with your feet. Stake the tree if it’s likely to be exposed to the wind. Use rubber ties that can expand with the tree as it grows and that allow the tree to move a little.

  8. MULCHING – Mulch with no more than two to three inches of mulching material over the planting area. Research shows that for trees which are newly planted, mulching with organic material can increase the rate at which a young tree’s fine roots develop by 400% as they’re no longer having to compete with grass roots. As a result, the tree’s canopy growth rate climbs by an additional 20%!
    CARE – Avoid volcano mulching. Remove any mulch which is stacked against the trunk so the root flare remains visible and open to the air.
    Human hands watering a new tree
  9. WATERING – If you have followed these last three Tree Care Diary articles, you will have chosen a native shade tree species that’s suited for the climate in your zip code. In the long run this will reduce its dependency on watering. Nevertheless, your newly planted tree will still need some watering support to help get the roots established before winter sets in and dormancy returns. The aim of watering is not to kill your tree through oxygen starvation caused by water-logged soil nor by causing a mini drought in your planting hole from under-watering.
    Water your new tree every day thoroughly at a trickle for at least an hour at a time. The moisture must penetrate into the root ball. In the second week reduce to watering every other day or more if the weather is dry. Continue to water twice a week until, say, towards the end of November and less frequently in wet weather, of-course. Avoid over-watering as this is a common cause of tree failure – yellowing leaves can be an early indicator of water-logged soil around the roots. Your young tree will benefit from regular checks and attention.
    For species-specific watering advice ask the tree nursery from whence the tree came.
    We also recommend that you check your soil’s moisture level between watering by inserting a garden trowel into the ground down to 3 inches below the surface (starting beneath the mulch layer) of the planting hole just to the side of the root ball. Create a small trench to this depth and use your finger to touch the soil at the bottom. If the soil is moist at the bottom, your tree will not need additional water.

  10. ADD A TREE GUARD – Finally, add a flexible, breathable tree guard to the base of the trunk to protect it against damage from mowers, weed trimmers, critters and the weather. The guard can be removed after two years or when the trunk reaches 3 to 4 inches in diameter.

For a more detailed explanation of some of these planting steps including the planting of ‘bare-root’ young trees, we refer you to “The Science of Planting Trees” by Colorado State University available here:

Please see our Tree Care Diary Disclaimer here. Despite our best efforts, our tree care advice cannot be relied upon by everyone in USA, in all locations, all the time. 

How to plant a bare root tree
Tree Care Diary - September